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A Taste of the Future: Marin Alsop with the BSO

Thursday’s appearance of Maestra Alsop at the helm of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was a special one, by all means: her first concert with the band to which she was (controversially) appointed Music Director last summer. On the program were works that may have presented the future symbiosis of a post-Temirkanov, Alsop-led BSO. A heavy-hitting Romantic (Dvořák) together with a 20th-century tonal American composer (Christopher Rouse). Replacing the indisposed Piotr Anderszewski was Leon Fleisher – and instead of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 14 we got No. 12 in A major.

Christopher RouseThe first symphony of Christopher Rouse, a work of less than 30 minutes duration (24, according to the program) but easily sounding 40 minutes long, was a 1986 commission of the BSO from this Baltimore native. It plays with B-A-C-H, but despite claims to the contrary, there isn’t much of Bach’s influence audible behind the Romanticism. More surefooted and cleaner entries would have helped in the brass-led (including “Wagner tubas”) theme that was adopted from Bruckner; a theme of the 7th symphony molten like Dalí might have. A solid and unwavering rhythm kept the work simple even where complex orchestral colors may otherwise have obfuscated matters. When the Bruckner theme is picked up again, later in the symphony, it has transformed itself from volcanic stone into a tranquil sunrise over which the symphony seems to peter out slowly... save for one thundering crash en route. It’s modern music written not to alienate conservative audiences while being just challenging enough to have them think themselves borderline avant-garde for enduring it. Most importantly it is music that convinces upon first hearing that there is more to be gained from repeated exposure of this and other Rouse works, especially for those to whom Dominick Argento and George Rochberg appeal. The only doubt about the work in my mind was whether or not that endless 'end' (it is difficult to speak of a 'finale' in this amorphous one-movement symphony) could not have done with half as many bars. There were times when I felt as though listening to the prelude to the prelude to Das Rheingold. After the initial ‘finding process’ of the brass, though, the performance was – watch out – rouseing!

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, Tenure's unofficial start puts strife out of mind (Baltimore Sun, January 13)

Tim Page, Baltimore's Bright New Baton (Washington Post, January 13)

Brian Sacawa, Alsop w/ BSO (Sounds Like Now, January 13)

T. L. Ponick, BSO impressive under maestra Alsop's baton (Washington Times, February 15)

Gail Wein, The Glow of Newness For Alsop and the BSO (Washington Post, February 15)
Also on Ionarts:

Alsop and the BSO III (July 26, 2005)

Alsop After All... (July 19, 2005)

Marin Alsop in Baltimore... or Not? (July 18, 2005)

Hilary Hahn at Strathmore [with the BSO] (February 21, 2005)

Leonard Bernstein (Marin Alsop’s mentor) was often accused of conducting his emotions rather than the orchestra in front of him. But no one ever doubted the authenticity of these emotions, which is why “Lennie” was forgiven by most for much of his overt exuberance. Marin Alsop conducts with the same level of physical investment – but somehow she doesn’t quite look genuine. I don’t doubt that she is – but her grand gestures and over-articulated motions seem more parody of a flamboyant maestro than the real thing. Fortunately the look of a conductor at work can be gotten used to – it shouldn’t count towards assessing Ms. Alsop’s performance. It is the music that counts in the end. After all, we are free to close our eyes during a concert but can’t well close our ears. In the Mozart, for the time being, she accompanied a work that bore the stamp of Leon Fleisher.

available at Amazon
W. A. Mozart, Piano Concertos Nos. 11, 12, & 14,
M. Perahia

Fleisher’s story is one that touches the heart and stirs the soul – and unlike the sad (pianistic) demise of Van Cliburn or the odd and disturbing turn to eccentricity of Glenn Gould, this North American story of a pianist seems to have arrived on the finishing lane to a Hollywood-worthy happy end. The performance of the Mozart A major concerto, K. 414, was only another little hobble in that direction. The story of Fleisher’s forced inactivity in the two-handed realm is sufficiently well known and need not be meted out any further here. Suffice it to say that his presence on the stage alone makes you overlook the occasional slip and slur – even if you didn’t grow up on his seminal recordings with George Szell from the 60s. Fleisher’s bio quotes this fifth-generation Beethoven student (there is nothing to the myth of passing on performance trades that far down the line – but the lineage Beethoven-Czerny-Leschetizky-Schnabel-Fleisher is too cool not to mention) as having learned “passion, not technique […] from Schnabel.” If you’ve heard any of Schnabel’s records, you’d never doubt that – nor would you have, judging from Thursday’s performance. Certainly warmth and expression were not missing in his playing of the beautiful Andante. Mozart’s silent goodbye from his friend and mentor Johann Christian – the “London” – Bach surely ranks among the (admittedly many) highlights of Mozart’s piano concertos. To say that the BSO was plagued by more unclean passages would be overstating it, but the relatively short notice switch from one concerto to another might have affected a performance bound only to get better over the next few days.

available at Amazon
Leon Fleisher, Two Hands
(Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert)
Vanguard Classics

Marin Alsop’s standing in contemporary American music is unchallenged. There are, however, some remaining doubts about her way with the Romantic staples that the BSO’s audience has gotten used to under Temirkanov’s leadership. Dvořák was among the composers that the Russian visibly and audibly reveled in, and Alsop is going to have to throw that audience these musical bones, for better or worse. The performance of what can be one of Dvořák’s greatest symphonic statements was not all that it could have been. Generally the performance was good and professionally executed, offering particular smooth transitions. It was above criticism but also well below ecstasy. The second movement’s surge was elastic and generally well played but at the same time rather lukewarm, limping sadly rather than strutting tragically. In the third movement the difference between a long symphony and a great symphony could have been made clearer with more lively playing. But even so, things sprawled along nicely enough. The conclusion was cut from the same cloth. An important base hit for Alsop, but not a home run.

Repeat performances will take place Friday at 8PM and Sunday at 11AM. On Saturday she will conduct a similar program in her only scheduled performance at Strathmore at 8PM. (The Mozart concerto will be replaced by the Brahms "Tragic Overture".)